On Wednesday, the U.S. Army became the last of the military branches to implement their COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
Moving forward, all active duty military serving in the Army who have not received a COVID-19 vaccination and do not have a valid exemption risk being discharged.
And while an estimated 97% of U.S. service members are currently vaccinated, according to the Washington Post, about 40,000 remain unvaccinated against COVID-19.
Alex Horton is a national security reporter who has been following this story for The Washington Post. He joined the Texas Standard to discuss the U.S. military’s vaccination policy.
Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: Let’s talk about the number of U.S. troops who remain unvaccinated. What is 40,000 soldiers in the grand scheme of things?
Alex Horton: Well, it’s somewhere in the area of about 3% of the active duty military. And I’ve heard folks say: well, you know, 97% vaccinated, that’s pretty good. That’s a lot higher than everyone else. But the military and the Defense Department are not Home Depot. If your local Home Depot is 97%, that’s great, it’s voluntary. But getting vaccinated is a lawful order. So typically you would expect 100% of people to follow a lawful order. So when you start talking about just falling short of that, and adding up the numbers to be maybe a couple of Army divisions, for a large organization like the military it starts to add up.
As we mentioned, the Army’s vaccine mandate goes into effect today. When do the other branches start their mandates? And is there any way of knowing how that’s been going so far?
The Air Force was the most aggressive with their timeline. Theirs was November 2. And just this week, they said they’ve kicked out 27 airmen for refusing the vaccine. They were first because they were the first ones to start the process. Last month, on November 2, the active-duty Navy and Marine Corps imposed their deadlines. So they’re in the process of removing folks. And then you have the Army, which is the largest of all. So [for the Army] I think there’s going to be a few weeks, a few months delay, probably similar to the Air Force, where it’s just going to take a while for the paperwork to go through, but we’ll start seeing more numbers and that Air Force numbers grow as time goes on.
You write that the Army’s mandate seems to be a little less punitive, more remedial than some of the other branches. Could you explain why that might be?
I asked the Army about this, and it’s not entirely clear why they’re a little bit divergent in their policies. The Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps all are pretty clear in saying: if you don’t get the vaccine, you’re out the door. Thank you. Goodbye. And the Air Force and the Navy have said: if you had an exemption request — a religious one or a medical one — and you got denied, you had five days to go and start your vaccine. Otherwise, you’d be kicked out. So it starts the clock.
The Army on the other hand – they put out guidance that said if vaccine refusal is the only thing going on, they’ll make it painful for you. You can’t re-enlist. You can’t get promoted. You can’t do a whole bunch of stuff that helps your career. It essentially kills it, but the Army’s policy doesn’t seem to be as aggressive and as immediate. The end is [still] going to be bad for you and you’ll get kicked out, but it’s sort of a boiling frog situation for their side.
Do you have a sense of why the Army would take a different approach? What factors might be in play?
My best guess would be that no one wants to kick anyone out at this point. The Marine Corps said that very plainly. They said: we’re the smallest force. We can’t just lose Marines over something like this. But they’re still aggressively kicking people out who refuse it. My best guess for the Army would be they want to keep some folks and maybe this will change minds. If you make it so uncomfortable, but you want to stay in the Army, maybe you’ll see the light. That’s my best guess.